While we can’t truly know what is beneath the surface until we begin excavations, we are anticipating learning something about the Euro-Canadian settlers who came to this region. Probably we will also intersect with the industrial boom that the lumber trade and the arrival of the railroad brought. Finally, we might learn something about how use of this landscape changed after the sawmills fell silent.
Historical archaeology is when we have written records and oral traditions that we can use together with artifacts to gain a more nuanced view of what happened at a site. Sometimes the information complements our picture of a site gained from the excavation—and sometimes documentary evidence conflicts with what we glean from the archaeological record!
Some argue that the documentary record means we don’t need to spend much time excavating historical sites. Surely we already know much about Nassau Mills, we have accounts from contemporary visitors that tell us of dramatic events and the prominent personalities of the day.
While these documents are an important tool that we can use to learn about the past, they do not tell us everything we would like to know. Documents are often incomplete and biased towards particular points of view. Often documents are based on imperfect recall or events are recast to portray actions or thoughts in an idealised fashion. More commonly, they are simply dry lists and accountings that don’t really have much personality–they are often sparse in detail about the daily lives, thoughts, and activities of people, and they neglect or overlook certain segments of society.
The information we can derive from material culture is a way to shed light on those unrecorded behaviours and under-represented members of a culture. The structures that made up the Nassau Mills complex, the mills, outbuildings, worker houses, farmhouses, railway platform, etc., and the refuse people discarded will reveal information about the everyday lives of the community at Nassau Mills.
By combining the historical record with the archaeological record, we explore a number of questions about the lived experience of people that we can’t otherwise address. We can move from the smallest to ever larger scales of social interaction. We can see how small scale material (e.g. the remains of a single house) fits into and is transformed by its relationship to larger cultural systems (Nassau Mills, Peterborough, Canada West, etc.).
Beginning May 1st, we will start to investigate around Nassau Mills with the Trent Archaeology Field School. We’ll be posting updates about our work, and the students will also be contributing to the site and relaying their experiences. We hope you enjoy following along with us.